In 2013, the shirt Franz Ferdinand wore when he was shot went on display at the Austrian Military Museum. Sitting upstage in a case on the Barbican stage, a replica of the military uniform acts as an inroad into Complicite’s and Schaubühne Berlin’s cautionary tale. At the start of Beware of Pity, an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novel, the jacket has yet to bear its iconic blood-spatter brown marks. It sits in the glass case, light blue and pristine, until the main character joins the cavalry, puts it on, and the story begins.
Set in late 1930s, Hofmiller (Christoph Gawenda) recalls the events of his life before the First World War. His youthful self (Laurenz Laufenberg) commits a social sin by asking the wheelchair-bound Edith (Marie Burchard) to dance, and his lingering pity ensnares him in the life of her family. Peripherally, tensions within the Austro-Hungarian empire and acts of anti-Semitism pervade Hofmiller’s self-centred narrative and belie a time of deep uncertainty. And the framing device emphasises that those tensions will continue to exist in Hofmiller’s later life as well.
Simon McBurney underlines the fact that Hofmiller’s tale is one that is being told. The ensemble play a series of roles, sometimes changing between them. They move collectively, fluidly about the stage, each of them having a chair and stand with a script. They balance physicality with their voices, even when their bodies are surrogates for other voices. Mics are not hidden but illuminated. The English surtitles frame the action, one on each side (although occasionally making it hard to catch the action onstage). Visual projections and music intricately pepper the narrative, even if the piano onstage seems underused.
These markers of performance, almost Brechtian, are reminders of the moral, parable-like nature of the story. The warning of the title is very clear. Hofmiller’s pity is cruel, and by placating both Edith and her family he catalyses and crystallizes his own tragedy (not to mention the tragedy of those surrounding him). But this production is more than just a story; it’s an investigation of evil and how it originates.
Both the link between Hofmiller’s wickedness and his weakness, and the astute observation that it takes much more to stand up to an organisation than to follow the crowd, feel like substantial insights into the atrocities that sit on the borders of the narrative. McBurney also shows that the past seeps into the present. A final montage of images that flicker through the 20th century up until the here and now reflect our age’s own instability and tension. It’s his strong directorial hand that jolts us into realising that there is something more insidious than pity.
The actors avoid falling too heavily into the internalized thoughts of the characters, and instead they seem like images from a memory or a distant past. And of course they are. Edith, primarily played by Burchard, carries a childish voice – petulant, weak, and tinny. Her temperament swings as drastically as Hofmiller suggests. Bruchard subtly but deftly demonstrates the lens through which we see her: she is not Edith but Hofmiller’s version of Edith. She is contained in an image, encased in a narrative, through which her image is altered.
It is the very structure that holds Ferdinand’s jacket – the case – that tells its story. The dangerously transparent glass suggests a clarity, a sincerity in the presentation. Yet history, just like Hofmiller, can bend truth and change reality, even under the guise of honesty. Beware of Pity magnificently demonstrates the ways in which we display the past: contextualising, omitting, and justifying. Pity is dangerous, but we must also be wary of the voice telling us to beware.
To watch the live stream of Beware of Pity until 26th February 2017, click here.